Edwin DuBose Heyward
(August 31, 1885 — June 16, 1940) was an American author best known for his 1925 novel Porgy
. This novel was the basis for the play by the same name (which he co-authored with his wife Dorothy) and, in turn, the opera Porgy and Bess
with music by George Gershwin.
Heyward was born in 1885 in Charleston, South Carolina. A descendant of Thomas Heyward, Jr., who was a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence as a representative of South Carolina, Heyward became a Charleston insurance and real-estate salesman. He had a long-standing and serious interest in literature. After achieving financial independence, he abandoned business to devote himself full time to writing.
The poet and playwright Langston Hughes said Heyward was one who saw "with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive." Biographer James M. Hutchisson characterizes Porgy
as "the first major southern novel to portray blacks without condescension" and states that the libretto to Porgy and Bess
was largely Heyward's work. Many critics have believed that Heyward was sympathetic in his portrayal of the Southern black. Others, however, have noted that the characters in Porgy
, though viewed sympathetically, are still viewed for the most part as stereotypes.
Heyward and his wife Dorothy, whom he met at the MacDowell Colony in 1922, spent many years in Charleston, where he taught at the Porter Military Academy, while observing and thinking deeply about the lives of blacks of that area. His mother participated in an amateur Southern singing society performing Gullah songs, and he sometimes joined her. It was open to anyone whose family had lived on a plantation, whether as owner or slave. In Charleston, Heyward found inspiration for his book, including what would become the setting (Catfish Row) and the main character (a disabled man named Porgy). Literary critics cast Heyward as an authority on Southern literature, later writing, "Heyward's attention to detail and reality of the Southern black's lifestyle was not only sympathetic but something that no one had ever seen done before."
Opening on Broadway in 1927, the non-musical play "Porgy" was a considerable success, more so than the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess
eight years later. The plot line of the opera follows the play almost exactly, while both differ greatly from the novel, particularly in the ending. Large sections of dialogue from the play were set to music for the recitatives in the opera.
In his introduction to the section on DuBose Heyward in Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation But Missed the History Books
, Stephen Sondheim wrote:
"DuBose Heyward has gone largely unrecognized as the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theater - namely, those of Porgy and Bess. There are two reasons for this, and they are connected. First, he was primarily a poet and novelist, and his only song lyrics were those that he wrote for Porgy. Second, some of them were written in collaboration with Ira Gershwin, a full-time lyricist, whose reputation in the musical theater was firmly established before the opera was written. But most of the lyrics in Porgy - and all of the distinguished ones - are by Heyward. I admire his theater songs for their deeply felt poetic style and their insight into character. It's a pity he didn't write any others. His work is sung, but he is unsung."
The novel Porgy
became a bestseller in 1926. Heyward continued to explore writing with another novel set in Catfish Row, Mamba's Daughters
(1929), which he and Dorothy again adapted as a play. His novella Star Spangled Virgin
was about the domestic life, problems and creative solutions of a native hustler named Adam Work. Heyward depicts the book's setting of Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands as an idyllic native society, based on a small farming economy which breaks down due to the misguided programs of the New Deal.
Heyward wrote Brass Ankle
, a play produced in 1931 in New York, which dealt with issues of mixed-race ancestry and its impact on a white couple in a small southern town. Reviewers treated his play favorably as a version of the "tragic mulatto", but it was not a commercial success.
His work includes "Jasbo Brown and other poems" published in 1924, and the children's book, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes
published in 1939, as well as the screenplay for the adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones
Heyward died from a heart attack in June of 1940, at the age of 54, in Tryon, North Carolina.